Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Meaning of Membership

‘Our membership is of no importance whatever unless it signifies that we are committed to something of far greater and more lasting significance than can adequately be conveyed by the closest association with any movement or organisation.’
(Edgar G Dunstan, Quaker faith & practice 11.02, 5th edition)

For a religious society without a separate class of leaders, in which every Friend shares responsibility for the governance of the community and its resources, membership has played an important role in Britain Yearly Meeting. It has provided an opportunity for newcomers to make a deliberate act of commitment to the Quaker community and to assume a full share of responsibility for its governance and financial support. Membership has served to indicate acceptance of mutual accountability for upholding collective discernment, including faithfulness to corporate Quaker testimony. The membership process has also offered a way of recognising and celebrating an inner transition from seeker to ‘convinced’ Friend.

Over recent decades membership has become a contested issue for British Quakers, leading to regular calls for its abandonment or radical revision. Some object to the membership process on grounds of principle, such as the supposed conflict with our ‘testimony to equality’ created by drawing a boundary between insiders and outsiders, or the process of 'judging' who is acceptable to become a member.

It has become common for people to attend meetings for many years, and to take on roles of responsibility within them, while being clear that they do not intend to apply for membership. As fewer attenders join, the proportion of members has decreased markedly. In many meetings it has become difficult to find Friends to fulfil responsibilities which require membership (such as eldership and oversight), leading to the growing practice of appointing attenders to these roles. This further undermines the rationale for distinguishing between members and attenders at all, which increasingly appears to be a meaningless distinction.

In fact we have made membership almost meaningless by our practice of it. For several decades our membership processes have failed to reflect a shared understanding of the core commitments involved in membership. Quaker faith & practice includes some quite clear statements about the application process which may make surprising reading:

‘Membership is still seen as a discipleship, a discipline within a broadly Christian perspective and our Quaker tradition, where the way we live is as important as the beliefs we affirm...
Membership is also a way of saying to the meeting, and to the world, that you accept the fundamental elements of being a Quaker: the understanding of divine guidance, the manner of corporate worship and the ordering of the meeting’s business, the practical expression of inward convictions and the equality of all before God.’ (11.01)

I suspect that in most meetings it is rare for any explicit reference to these ‘fundamental elements of being a Quaker’ to be made at any point in the membership process. Instead, membership practices seem to have diverged quite widely between different area meetings. Some meetings might emphasise one or another particular aspect of Quaker tradition (my area meeting asks explicitly about acceptance of the peace testimony). Generally, however, the most common tendency is to have little or no accepted standard for membership at all, beyond the individual’s desire to join.

The consequence over many years has been that Quaker membership no longer means that someone shares any common understanding of, or commitment to, the Quaker way. As Patricia Loring has observed in Listening Spirituality, ‘the consequence of having no standard [for membership] is that the Meeting conforms to the vision of those it has admitted.’ Hence, most British Friends share the culture and values of the liberal middle-class background that they largely belong to, without necessarily having any common commitment to specifically Quaker traditions, testimony or practices.

Renewal of our Society’s spiritual roots in core Quaker practices needs a re-assessment of our membership process. All of the elements of a more meaningful understanding and practice of membership are in fact already contained in the current version of our Book of Discipline. They simply need digging out and deciding to take them seriously enough to practice them.

Preparation for potential new members.

Our meetings could make use of the advice given in Quaker faith & practice 11.08 to ‘nurture and support individuals of all ages so that they can develop a sense of belonging and an understanding of our shared beliefs, testimonies and spiritual discipline.’ This could be done in an intentional and explicit way to encourage attenders to become more familiar with the ‘fundamental elements of being a Quaker’ (and especially our understanding of core Quaker practices for worship, discernment and testimony). This would, of course, require all of those involved in the membership process, including overseers, elders and visitors, to work on exploring and challenging their own understanding of the Quaker way.

At Sheffield Central meeting, we have offered a regular series of talks and discussions on the ‘Quaker Basics’, particularly intended for attenders. These are quite easy to organise, running for an hour after meeting on Sunday, with each session introduced by a different experienced Friend. The topics we have included are worship, discernment, origins, testimony and community. Last year, we concluded with an additional session specifically on membership.

Mentoring or spiritual friendship

There is an important role in the membership process for personal relationship with one or more experienced Friends, to accompany and support the person considering membership. Our idea of how to help people understand Quaker practices has often been limited to giving them a book or leaflet, which is inadequate on many levels. Quaker faith & practice 11.08 makes reference to the possibility of ‘special nurturing or supporting Friends’ who could accompany potential new members, both before and after the formal membership process, to offer supportive listening and sharing of experience.

There is already a model for this mentoring process in the 'Becoming Friends' learning resource, and it could easily be extended to offer one-to-one support to any attenders who are considering membership. In some cases, this might need to draw on Friends from outside the local or area meeting. Given the very unequal distribution of Quaker numbers and resources between meetings, this could also offer a way for larger and better-resourced meetings to support others that are struggling.

Collective discernment

The practicalities of setting up a more meaningful and helpful process for potential new members are straightforward enough. More fundamentally, however, they rely on shared discernment by the existing members of an area meeting, and agreement about what the core commitments of Quaker membership are. In many meetings, this is likely to be the real stumbling block to any improvement in membership practices. The current tendency is often to try to avoid potential conflict by avoiding discussion about the requirements of membership, or immediately abandoning any attempts at change as soon as someone challenges them as ‘exclusive’. We need to have a deeper conversation than this, one that is not afraid to question current assumptions about the minimal meaning of membership, if we are to enable membership to perform a useful role in the life of our communities.

What does Quaker membership mean to you? Are there ways that your meeting has tried to improve the membership process?


  1. Thanks Craig for this very succinct summary of the issues around membership. I find that objections to membership generally spring from a misunderstanding of the Quaker view of equality, as well as a hyper-individualistic approach. When other people become members, I feel supported and reaffirmed in my own commitment to the Quaker community. Meetings need people to come in to membership, not only to swell the ranks of visibly committed people, but to provide an occasion for celebration.

  2. Thanks Mark - the issue around equality is important I think. My understanding of the Quaker way is that it is rooted in practices that recognise and illuminate the equality of every person, as a bearer of the divine Spirit, and a potential channel of God's loving purposes. The idea of a Quaker 'testimony to equality' is often understood instead as a kind of abstract principle which dictates that everyone is basically the same, and ignores the diversity of gifts and leadings that are given to members of a community. If we recognise that people can legitimately be led in different directions, then then is no problem of 'equality' in recognising that some may be led to commit themselves to Quaker membership and some may not.
    In Friendship,

    1. Not only that everyone is essentially the same (which we are and at the same time are definitely not), but that we all have equal rights and equal knowledge and wisdom, which we absolutely have not. Power issues and people's inferiority complexes enter into this debate, which is going on all over liberal Quakerism world-wide.

      This comment is cogent:
      >however, they rely on shared discernment by the existing members of an area meeting, and agreement about what the core commitments of Quaker membership are. In many meetings, this is likely to be the real stumbling block to any improvement in membership practices. The current tendency is often to try to avoid potential conflict by avoiding discussion about the requirements of membership, or immediately abandoning any attempts at change as soon as someone challenges them as ‘exclusive’. We need to have a deeper conversation than this, one that is not afraid to question current assumptions about the minimal meaning of membership...

      If liberal Friends are good at anything, it is self-suppression of discussion lest it "offend" or become "difficult", so we are superb at conflict avoidance. And conflict means disagreement of any size, which comes from any difference, perceived incompatibility, challenge to the taboos of superficially disturbance-free boredom...

      We are also challenged to "live adventurously" and recognize that our individualism has stifled most individuality and lots of diversity. The fear of discussion, let alone argument, leads to ever-larger conflicts. The ironies abound.

      We must re-establish that the Testimony on Community, the requirement for Integrity, and the search for Unity in Equality demand we re-think this culture of ours. We must re-discover the Peace Testimony, which does not mean No Conflicts; it means Solve the Conflict! Talk! Work it out! Deal with feelings! Seek alternatives! Wait in the Light for a better way out! Fear of conflict --like all fear-- can only lead to the death of our Society.

  3. Craig
    Not a comment on this post directly but I understand you have some responsibility for Quaker Renewal UK facebook pages.
    These facebook pages would be of great interest to me but I refuse to sign up to facebook. (I got myself removed from facebook maybe 5 years ago by threatening them with legal action if they didn't remove me!).
    There are many facebook groups and pages I can look at without signing up. Requiring people to sign in to facebook is exclusive and means these pages are not truly public but for facebook users only.
    Would it be possible to change the privacy settings so that content can be viewed without signing in?
    Trevor Bending
    Brentford & Isleworth LM. (attended Sheffield central once!)

    1. Thanks for alerting me to this Trevor. The privacy settings are on 'public', and I can't find any other options to make it available to people who don't have a Facebook account. If anyone can help, it would be appreciated.
      In Friendship,

    2. I think Quaker renewal UK is a group[public] rather than a page. Pages are public to all - even if not signed up to Facebook, but groups need you to be signed up to Facebook. It might be worthwhile signing up just to be a member of a group that is interesting. At times my FB activity is just quakers and plants!

    3. Thanks for clarifying this Maura.

  4. a bit long winded to add a comment from another blog as a comment here...but here goes there is a comment Howard Brod that I found interesting [will quote below link

    "A strong, grounded facilitator (clerk) of the Clearness committee is important to ensure none of the above occurs. I have witnessed disastrous results when advice is given, opinions are expounded upon, and judgements are issued towards the focus person.

    In our meeting we trust the inner teacher so much that we started about twenty years ago treating membership and marriage similar to all other Clearness committees. For example, during a membership Clearness committee, at the end of offering open ended questions out of the silence with no advice or opinions also provided, the clerk of the Clearness committee simply asks the Friend if they “are clear to be a member of meeting”. The clearness committee does not make that judgement. The prospective member does. Then at the next meeting for business, the clerk of the Clearness committee reports that “Friend John Doe is clear that he should become a member of the meeting”. Instead of approving the membership (as is done in many, if not most Quaker meetings), the whole meeting simply approves the process used for membership. Questions may be asked of the clerk of the Clearness committee, such as: “Was the Clearness committee conducted in a spirit of worship?”, “Were no judgements, opinions, or advice given; rather, was Friend John Doe allowed the time and opportunity to seek the wisdom of his own inner voice?”, “Is the decision to become a member of meeting that of Friend John Doe’s, and not the ‘judgement’ of the Clearness committee members?”. If the answer is “yes” to these questions, then the whole meeting approves the process used at the Clearness committee. It does not approve the membership because John Doe has already done that in his own heart. If the answer is “no” to these questions, then the sense of the meeting might be that a proper Clearness committee according to our custom needs to be conducted with John Doe.

    Eliminating a spirit of judgement of the prospective member’s worthiness to be a member is in keeping with the spirit of our whole meeting’s spiritual life – where we simply support the spiritual journey of each other without standing in judgement of one another."

  5. All of our problems as a meeting and as a movement walk in the door on two legs. And so do all the blessings. I think this makes membership the most important aspect of our faith and practice to get right.

    I yearn for what I call "covenantal" membership, by which I mean that both the applicant and the meeting look at membership as a binding set of mutual responsibilities and privileges, along the lines of that other all-important covenant—marriage. And the one thing that makes this a covenant rather than just a membership—that is, a religious agreement—is the promise to engage each other in our spiritual lives.

    I such a religious community, the meeting invites—and expects—that the individual or family will bring to the community, not just their time, talent, and treasure, but their spiritual lives—their spiritual gifts, their leadings and ministries, their discernment as part of the meeting's collective discernment—and their love. And the new member invites the meeting to engage with them in their spiritual journey.

    The life of the spirit is hard. We encounter obstacles. We find ourselves in the desert, in the wilderness, lost without direction, dry in that well from which we draw to contribute to those around us, to our meeting, to the world. In the life of the spirit, we sometimes run past our guide; we sometimes step through the traces—we screw up.

    When these things happen, we should not leave our members to fend for themselves. But all too often, we do not even know a Friend is struggling! This is what makes membership in a meeting so valuable and unique and even personally transformative.

    Unfortunately, many of our meetings (most?) do not understand the life of the spirit this way so they cannot define their role vis a vis their members in this context. The life of the spirit is not about transformation but only about comfort and renewal in the face of modern life. Religion is a haven, not a crucible, even though life itself is no haven, but a crucible. Religion is about escape from its heat rather than a way to refine one's soul.

    So I think the problem is not so much our definition of membership as our definition of the life of the spirit. If the spiritual life is just about comfort, then a meeting does not need to differentiate between members and attenders—all deserve comfort and renewal. But you should ask for and choose to engage with each other in the utterly intimate project of the transformative spiritual life.

    1. Thank you Steven, for this beautiful and profound reflection.


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)